The NBA MVP award is the most important in sports - check the list and you'll see only Hall of Fame players or future Hall of Famers. And with so much great young talent in the NBA right now, whoever takes the prize may be cementing an early case for enshrinement. So who has the upper hand now?
In case you've failed to notice, LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet. His scoring is down from last year, but most of his other stats are up, including his 3-point percentage. The Heat are at the top of the league in scoring and are starting to pull away from the rest of the league already. So let's forget about LeBron for a second, who has a great chance to repeat as NBA MVP. Who else in the league has had a strong first month, with a shot to unseat the champ?
There's something incredible about Kobe - if his peak year was 2005-06, when he became the first person to average 35 points per game since Michael Jordan, the years since have been some of his most efficient. Since 2008-09, he's been at about 26 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists every year, give or take some decimal places, and he's missed only 16 games. The consistency, the durability, the sustained excellence, and the championships - it sounds weird to say, but maybe we all take Kobe for granted.
At the moment, he leads the NBA in scoring per game at 26.9, he's fifth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, and his team has climbed back to .500 having won 6 of their last 9 games. If the Lakers continue to climb in the standings and finish the year around 55 or so wins, Bryant may finally earn a second MVP award. That's right - for all the accolades and rings, Kobe still has less MVP awards than his new teammate, Steve Nash. The fact that his supporting cast is so strong should hurt him, but it certainly didn't hurt LeBron James last year. Plus, if Pau Gasol is traded in-season and the Lake Show has to integrate new players, Kobe may earn even more support for continuing to play at a high level with a brand new team around him.
No surprise, but Durant is playing very well. His scoring is also down so far, but his other stats are up - he's grabbing more boards, dishing more assists in the absence of former running mate James Harden, and is even shooting at a better clip. Heck, he's even rapping now. But his team has struggled against the elite so far - the Thunder count losses against the Spurs, Celtics, and Grizzlies - and the team's success will be the ultimate indicator of Durant's improvement in his sixth season. He got to the Finals last year, but we want to see him win, not just contend. It's an unfair burden, but he's been so sublimely great so far that there's a feeling that he has more.
The Thunder are on a better win pace than last year, and a 60-win season may tip the scales in favor of Durant. He's the top dog in OKC, but teammate Russell Westbrook is so good that the two may steal votes from each other when it comes down to it. LeBron probably won't have the same issue with Dwyane Wade, who is firmly entrenched in the Scottie Pippen phase of his career at this point. Voter fatigue may steer folks away from LeBron and over to KD, especially if his team has more wins than the Heat.
A few weeks ago, I identified Tony Parker as the Spurs' leading candidate. But thus far, it's the Big Fundamental who is having the biggest impact. Parker has been great, but Duncan is having the kind of throwback year that makes you wonder if he could play forever. He's playing more than 30 minutes a night right now, and that number will surely come down, but he's also having his best year PER wise since 2006-07. If the Spurs win the West again, it will be hard to ignore the resurgent Duncan.
The Knicks hot start has Melo in the MVP conversation, but team success will have a lot to do with his chances, maybe more so than anyone else on the list. If the Knicks get a top-3 spot in the East, Melo's efficient scoring in the face of ridiculous team turnover will be the key factor. But if the Knicks fade, like they are liable to do, Melo will probably have to jack up more shots, which will bring down that much improved field goal percentage. Still, the Knicks are on pace for 56 (!!!) wins, which would be their most since 1996-97.
Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph
Someone here has to get credit for Memphis' emergence as a top team, but these two will probably vulture votes from each other.
Deron Williams/Brook Lopez
Same here - Lopez has bounced back from injury in a big way, and Williams is having a good but not great season so far. If the Nets continue to improve, it will most likely be Williams who gets the props.
If Rondo keeps dishing out assists at a ridiculous clip - more than 13 per game, at this moment - and the Celtics can get over 50 wins, he may get a wave of that Steve Nash/Derrick Rose point guard love that crops up from time to time. It's strange to think that Rondo is only 26 - just a year younger than LeBron James, and still criminally underrated. He came in eighth in MVP voting last year, but should be much higher this year.
Still a great player, but the Clippers are not playing as well as they did last year. They'll need to step it up if Paul is going to get over the hump.